All hail Belgium. Plucky little Belgium is now showing the way against the corporatist cardinals of Europe's mother church. On Monday this week the separatist New Flemish Alliance secured most seats in the Belgian assembly. The party leader, Bart de Wever, favours "evolutionary evaporation" of the Belgian state and the emergence of Flanders as a freestanding member of the European Union. Sooner or later, he will get his way.
In 1992 (but on 1 April) the Times published a front-page story pegged to a Belgian public service strike reporting a secret plan for Flanders to rejoin the Netherlands. French-speaking Wallonia would go to France and Brussels become the independent capital of Europe. An editorial remarked that "the dissolution of Belgium comes as a shock", especially as a radio shutdown meant Belgians were "unable to check the date". The paper was inundated by enraged Belgians who, despite producing Magritte and Tintin, lacked a sense of humour.
The Times was 18 years ahead of itself. The joke is coming to pass in the corridors of Brussels. Belgium has been an artificial construct since its invention in 1830. Until recently the Flemish-speaking 6.5 million were dominated by the French-speaking four million in Wallonia. The country never evolved the customary institutions of a unitary state, such as nationwide parties, a single language or a common media and political discourse. Everything was north versus south.
Since the 1980s Flanders and Wallonia have been given ever more devolution, as has the French-speaking Brussels enclave within Flanders. Each round has yielded a desire for more. Over the past two decades Belgium has ceded to Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels services such as health, education, development, agriculture, even foreign trade treaties. Only taxation and social security are national, and these are the proximate cause of Flemings' anger, since their taxes pour south to finance Wallonia's "social dependents".
During the election Wallonia's socialist leader, Elio di Rupo, ignored Europe's economic crisis by calling for ever more transfers from Flanders, for higher state spending on health and pensions and for price controls on food. Belgium is thus a microcosm of the EU, a treaty state in which political entities claim resources by territorial negotiation. The result was inevitable. Just as German taxpayers are finally fed up with subsidising Greek pensioners, so Flemings are fed up with subsidising Walloons.
In these circumstances Belgium's elite has looked to supranational bodies such as Nato and the EU for its status, even as statehood disintegrates beneath its feet. Despite being the battlefield for Europe's wars throughout history, Belgians have no enemies other than themselves. Why should they be expected to cohabit in coalitions that notoriously take months to form and weeks to collapse?
However much Euro-enthusiasts wish it were otherwise, the craving for lower tier self-government refuses to die. Indeed, it is booming. In Scandinavia, Italy, Spain, even the UK, concession after concession is made to devolutionary sentiment. It is made with a patronising nod at the parish-pump quaintness of separatist leaders, dubbed populist, extremist or right-wing, never just democratic.
To the Economist, de Wever is a "populist bruiser". To the Times, his success has "potentially disastrous implications" for Europe. Similar language is used of the Italians' Northern League, Scotland's nationalists and Spain's Catalans. No one says why. To modern Eurocrats, localists are merely below the salt.
Countries dissolve when the political logic that held them together dissolves. There is no reason why an independent Flanders should not be as resilient as Slovakia, Slovenia, Ireland or the Baltic states. Bigness is no guarantee of prosperity, usually the opposite. Big statism is a hangover from 20th-century imperialism and the needs of perpetual war. It is now claimed for globalisation, but as that draws power away from democratic institutions, so the self-governing urge claws it back.
The crisis in the euro was the widely predicted result of the EU's leaders running faster economically than they could ever walk politically. At first they thought they could even out the performance of nations by transferring huge sums from rich to poor. This infuriated the rich and enslaved the poor in dependency. The move from what was a free-trade union to what is touted as a "fiscal-transfer union" has gone beyond what is tolerable to the disparate European electorates who must foot the bill. The euro saga is Belgium times 10.
The European movement now mimics the Roman Catholic church in the 16th century. Its popes and cardinals, in perpetual conclave, fear Protestant dissent on all sides yet do nothing but reassert the dogma of ever-closer union and demand that everyone works for a "better Europe". Rebellious provinces must be suppressed. Any move to democratic referendum, such as in 2005, must be ignored. Top-down edicts pour forth and cash is lavished on subordinate governments. Should a Verdian Don Carlos emerge "to defend the glorious cause of Flanders", he must be wiped out by the Inquisition or ridiculed by the press.
The best analysis of this phenomenon remains Larry Siedentop's Democracy in Europe, which argued, in 2000, that the union was doomed without a legitimacy beyond the synthetic nonsense of the European parliament. Language, geography, history, kinship and customs of consent had to be recognised as the building blocks of a new democracy. Siedentop called for English as the common European language, the evolution of a collective political class, more respect for localism and a European senate. It was not enough to consign national and sub-national identities to a department of minority languages, funny clothes, country dancing and cheese.
The one thing Siedentop did not contemplate, writing still in the 20th century, was that the major premise of his analysis might simply be rejected by Europe's peoples. They might no longer regard it as essential to their security and prosperity to enter a union to finance the spendthrift welfare of Greece and Spain. A new generation might not see the corruption of Brussels as "a price worth paying" to avoid a third world war. Flanders might simply want to rule itself.
Since the debacle of the Lisbon referendums, Euro-pluralism has emerged as proof against ever closer union. The Single European Act of 1986 appears to have been a sort of psychological boundary, beyond which political unity should not have strayed. Go too far, as did the Lisbon treaty, and the threads would snap. Europe would lose touch with its component countries, and they would lose touch with their subnational identities. In extremis, they would face break-up, as have Spain, Austria and now Belgium. The history of enforced European union has, after all, been a long parade of catastrophic dictatorship.
When a country – let alone a continent – lacks the bonds of a collective nationhood it is no longer a country, merely a state. Nations forged in war do not necessarily survive peace. Belgium may retain the trappings of sovereignty, a monarch, an army, a customs union and (perhaps) a football team. But taxes and cross-subsidies will only be acceptable within self-governing communities with a shared sense of co-responsibility, not across whole continents.
Ignoring this maxim is what is sorely testing the eurozone and is breaking Belgium. Nor should the UK think itself immune. Devolution everywhere is a political one-way ticket. After Flanders, Scotland.
by Simon Jenkins